Friday, April 24, 2009

Bad movies that hurt so good

I'm generally not prone to celebrating other people's failures but when it comes to a really bad movie I'm guilty of a touch of schadenfreude. To make a truly horrible film - which becomes known as such for many years - is indeed an artistic talent, albeit an accidental one.

Edward D. Wood Jr. is often cited as the worst filmmaker of all-time. The writer, director and actor made many films, but his most well known - popular is the wrong word - were "Glen or Glenda," "Bride of the Monster" and "Plan 9 From Outer Space." He is immortalized by Tim Burton in the film "Ed Wood," which starred Johnny Depp as Wood, but was not seen by many (budget: $18 million, domestic gross: $5.9 million). You should rent "Ed Wood," as it's a fascinating study of the man and the low-budget movie making business. If you're daring and enjoy a good chuckle, rent some of Wood's actual films.

Like any movie buff, I have seen scores of bad movies over the years. Truly horrible ones? Far fewer.

There are differences not only in the degree of "bad," but also in type. There's "bad" boring, "bad" dumb, and even "bad" inane - but then there's also "bad" hilarious. In other words, most bad movies will leave you annoyed, frustrated and/or confused, and in some cases actually move you to anger. Generally they all lead to disappointment. In contrast, an awful movie can be quite satisfying.

And making a hilariously bad movie takes talent - or at least some rare combination of tenaciousness, an utter lack of moviemaking skills and a void where your self-awareness gene should be.

Tommy Wiseau, the director and writer of "The Room" has talent. This movie is by far the worst I have ever seen. But it's wonderful. It should be required viewing for every film school student as an example (well hundreds, really) of what not to do when trying to make a movie.

"The Room" is ostensibly a drama about a guy named Johnny (played by Wiseau) whose girlfriend Lisa is cheating on him with his best friend, Mark. That's pretty much it for the story, although you can tell in an interview in the DVD's extras that Wiseau thinks there's a lot more going on.

Johnny is supposed to be a successful American businessman, loved by his friends and respected by all. But Wiseau's heavy (European?) accent is obvious in every scene. Plus, his character is often mocked. And for some reason Johnny's not good at eye contact. I don't think it's intentional, it's just bad acting.

Going into too much more detail will ruin the experience of the Room, should you choose to watch it. Suffice it to say, the dialogue is pathetic, the staging and art direction are lame (my wife swears she saw the Sesame Street set, complete with Oscar's trash can), the unrealistic greenscreen scenes - and interminable love scenes - will leave you howling, and the acting is pedestrian in most cases. Still, I have to give an honourable mention to the actress (over)playing Lisa's mother. Someone should report her to the acting police; her list of offences is long.

I heard about "The Room" from an article in Entertainment Weekly,,20246031,00.html that explains its whole history, which is fascinating but too lengthy to go into here. Apparently many hollywood stars love the movie, including Will Arnett, Paul Rudd and Kristen Bell. Bell even hosts "The Room" viewing parties. There are midnight viewings in some US cities (staged in a similar way to showings of the Rocky Horror Picture Show) and Wiseau sometimes shows up. He insists "The Room" is supposed to be partly comedic and the DVD cover mentions the film's black humour. Don't be fooled. It's meant to be a drama. And that just makes it so much better.

When I tried to rent "The Room" I couldn't find a single video store carrying it in downtown Toronto so I ordered it online. It was more than a box office bomb when it came out in 2003 (estimated gross $1,900), but Wiseau still paid for a DVD release. I'm so glad that he did.

If you love hilariously bad movies I recommend you get your hands on a copy too. But don't ask to borrow mine. I don't know that I could ever part with it. I'm no collector, but it's definitely one of my most prized possessions.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Billy Bob's plea: pretend I'm not me

The uproar Billy Bob Thornton caused during a recent interview on CBC Radio One's Q program brought to the surface the issue of disclosure, and specifically what subjects can or should be considered off limits during an interview.

If you're not familiar with the story, Thornton went on the radio on April 8th ( to promote his band the Boxmasters but immediately became uncooperative and difficult when his movie career was mentioned in the show's introduction. He said Q producers - and by extension its host - were "instructed" not to discuss it.

Now I always thought personal things such as a recent breakup or the death of a loved one were topics that could be considered out of bounds to an interviewer. Apparently Billy Bob Thornton's list of don't-go-there topics is a bit broader.

The host of Q, Jian Ghomeshi, was clearly taken aback when Thornton began the interview by answering basic questions like "How long has the band been together?" with "I don't know," and "I don't understand the question." His band members seemed surprised too. Probably because, whether he was "instructed" to or not, Ghomeshi was actually trying to respect the wishes of his famous guest. Ghomeshi never asked Thornton questions about his movie career, though he tried to ask him several about music. And, when things came to a head, Ghomeshi also explained that the only reason films were brought up at all was to give listeners some context - in the intro - about what they were about to hear. "There's plenty of context without all that," Thornton shot back.

Thornton seemed to want to pretend this particular day that he had never been involved in films. When he was asked if music has always been his passion, he responded with "Would you ask Tom Petty that question?" He also hinted that the host was insinuating that music was no more than a hobby for him. In fact, Ghomeshi's questioning indicated that he thought the opposite was true and he gave Thornton a couple of chances to corroborate the theory.

The interview only continued for two reasons:
1. Thornton's bandmates gamely answered some questions.
2. Ghomeshi managed to keep his cool and didn't just shut down the whole thing in disgust.

But it wasn't pretty, and it left listeners fuming - mostly because Thornton made a point of insulting Canadian audiences. "We tend to play places where people throw things at each other," he said. "Here, they just sort of sit there. And it doesn't matter what you say to 'em . . . It's mashed potatoes but no gravy." Not exactly a testament to the fine character of the Boxmasters' US fan base, but I think Thornton was just trying to strike out at Ghomeshi at that point.

Thornton also refused to sing a scheduled live song at the end of the program, claiming that he was the drummer (in fact he's the singer, and drums occasionally) and didn't have his drums.

So was he just really tired that morning? Hung over? High? None of these excuses could justify his abhorrent behavior. He wanted the right to control the interview and figured he had the clout to demand that right. But it's not like Q would be incapable of booking a good alternative guest. He and the Boxmasters were lucky to be there.

And let's assume for a moment that big-name guests on Q were allowed to set the agenda for their interviews ahead of time. Would Tom Cruise be allowed to come on the program after demanding that no one mention movies he starred in that made less than $50 million at the box office? Could Kevin Costner say no in advance to all "Waterworld" questions? It's a slippery slope.

The reason a near-unknown band like the Boxmasters got on national radio in Canada was because a certain actor, writer and movie director is the band's singer. No doubt that's also why Willie Nelson asked them to open for him (along with Ray Price) on his current Canadian tour. To pretend any different is both disingenuous and hypocritical.

And this wasn't the end of the story for the Boxmasters. After a Toronto stop that earned mixed reviews in the papers - and boos from the audience when Thornton told them Ghomeshi didn't keep his word about not discussing his movie career - the Boxmasters quit the tour. No reason was given, except for a claim that certain members of the band, other than its singer, had the flu.
Perhaps Thornton realized that public opinion around the issue of reasonable disclosure was not swaying to his rhythm. I wonder if the rest of the Boxmasters were as keen to jump off Willie Nelson's tour bus. I doubt it. They have nothing to fall back on.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Review: One Week

The synopsis for the recently released feature film "One Week" doesn't exactly sound like fun: it's about a guy in his mid-20s who finds out he has cancer and decides, on a whim, to take a week-long road trip across Canada on a motorcycle.

You'd be forgiven for assuming this was a recipe for filmic doom and gloom. But it isn't. This movie is insightful, funny, touching, challenging, lyrical and subtly beautiful. And it's the best I've seen so far in 2009.

Joshua Jackson is Ben Tyler, a recently engaged, private school teacher with a fine family who - if you were to add up the good parts of his life - should be a very happy young man. When he is forced to face his own mortality, he starts to closely analyze each of these parts, and they don't always stand up well to the increased scrutiny.

The problem with any movie dominated by a long road trip is the gaps. The gaps in conversation, the lack of interaction, the times when, just as the film's characters are, you're forced to just stare out at the countryside and think about stuff. With a single main character, you'd expect to experience many more of these problematic gaps. 

But there are very few. Director and writer Michael McGowan (who also directed 2004's "Saint Ralph") fills up the journey with a number of things to chew on: the gorgeous cinematography, the interesting (not uniformly quirky - don't worry indie-haters) people Ben meets, his emotional stumbling blocks, his physical travel challenges and a phenomenal soundtrack.

The movie's Canadian. I didn't have to mention that because it makes no difference, but when you note the quality of this production it's worth pointing out that it was shot on a budget of only $1.9 million. Also, McGowan clearly benefits from his special understanding of Canadians; he knows what makes us tick. Plus, he knows that we love our country - even if we aren't the kind of nation that shouts it out to the rest of the world.

Jackson is perfect as the movie's hero. His character is not an angel and he's not a bad man, but he is going through something profound, and Jackson's measured performance shows a maturity he hasn't demonstrated in his acting until now. Liane Balaban is moving in the complex role of Ben's fiance.

"One Week" is not a tearjerker. It's not a cancer movie. It's a satisfying and fulfilling ride, containing a number of juicy surprises, along with fresh insight into the human condition. Word of mouth is the only way this one will be widely seen. Make sure you don't miss it.

****1/2 (out of five)

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Thursday, April 2, 2009

Stunted sequels

How do you feel about movie studios churning out sequels to popular movies? How about decades later? With different actors?

Here's a story about two possible examples:

During a presentation at the movie industry's annual ShoWest convention in Las Vegas on Wednesday, Sony distribution president Rory Bruer said that the studio is going back for thirds on the Ghostbusters and Men in Black franchises. Now, of course, the question on everyone's mind is: Who will be starring in said monster-fighting movies? Sony isn't talking (Bruer's announcement arrived almost in passing), but it is expected that Ivan Reitman, Harold Ramis, Bill Murray, and Dan Aykroyd will return to be involved to some degree on a followup to 1989's Ghostbusters II.

Meanwhile, Men in Black III is in even more of a nascent stage. Sony won't comment on whether Will Smith will be involved in the project in any way, either as an actor or producer.

Ghostbusters and Men In Black were a lot of fun - and their sequels weren't bad either - but why I liked them had an awful lot to do with stars Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. These gifted comic actors were key to my enjoyment, especially considering the type of high concept comedy in both of these movies.

Having them cameo in the sequels isn't going to bring me into the theatre. Younger, hotter actors won't sway me either. Maybe I'm a stickler, but how can you even call something a sequel if its lead actors are, for all intents and purposes, MIA?

Would you go and see a third Ghostbusters or Men in Black movie if its original stars were only there as window dressing, or is there a lot more to films like these than their stars?